Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on Feb. 8, 2009.
Mark’s gospel is fast paced. It’s quick and as readers trying to keep our eyes on Jesus, we must stay alert. So it is in this reading. As best we can tell, today’s text is an extension of a 24-hour period spent in Capernaum, the first half of which we covered last week as Jesus was interrupted in the Synagogue by the man overcome with demons. This is the beginning of Jesus’ great success as a teacher, preacher and healer in the area of the Galilee.
As soon as they leave the Synagogue, the timetable quickens. But the quick pace seems accelerated because from door to door, from the Synagogue steps to Peter’s doorstep are only what? 30 yards? Just a few houses down the street, we might say. So Mark says it simply, as they left the synagogue, they entered the house where Simon and Andrew grew up and there they find Simon’s mother-in-law bedded down with a fever. That description is not the narrator speeding things up; it’s a reality as one can move from doorstep to doorstep in seconds. Thus, Mark gives us a physical hint about the size of the village of Capernaum and we note it’s no more than a cluster of streets surrounding a small Jewish synagogue on the northwest shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.
No one knows her name. Likely she was a widow by this time as she lived with Simon and Andrew, two younger men who were not her sons. It’s a further speculation that she found work to do that helped the boys. Maybe she salted the fish they caught. Perhaps she fed them dinner after a day on the boat.
Where was her daughter, Simon’s wife? We don’t know. We do know, however, Peter’s mother-in-law was of concern to Jesus. With Simon and Andrew are the brothers James and John “ remember this is early in Jesus’ ministry and apparently the other disciples hadn’t yet joined them. It appears that these five men alone are present that day. Jesus heard about her illness and went directly to their house and took her by the hand and healed her.
Actually, the tenderness of how Jesus dealt with her stands out in this story. Jesus walked to her house, took her by the hand, and helped her up. He stopped from his busyness, something that would only accelerate as soon as word of her healing spread through the village. Jesus stopped from the many things that were crowding into his life so he could focus on this one thing and he took her by the hand and helped her get up. It’s a beautiful image, notes Pastor Larry Bethune. There’s a whole sermon right there, on the healing power of touch. The right touch at the right time tells a person you care and they are worth caring about. And that it is unusually healing for someone who has been sidelined by illness or tragedy or shame.
Frederick Buechner defines compassion this way: Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you, too.
And as there was no residue from her illness, she got up and began serving them. Her response to Jesus’ attention and healing was to give back through her hospitality. This story could appear self-serving if we didn’t get a further clue from Mark about what this meant. It could have looked something like this from one of the disciples who were still learning what service to Jesus was all about, Simon! Your mother-in-law’s sick? Well Who’s going to fix lunch for us after Synagogue? followed perhaps by this self-serving question from one of the others, Hey Jesus, think you could heal this woman so we can get something to eat?
All that kind of thinking disappears when Mark tells us she rose from her sickbed and ministered to Jesus. The use of this word minister is not all that common in Mark’s gospel. Mark’s first chapter tells us the angels ministered to Jesus following the temptation experience in the wilderness. Jesus says of himself in the tenth chapter that he came to minister (same term). Mark never tells us the disciples ever ministered to Jesus. Get it now? Her work to serve Jesus and his friends is considered as sacred as that of the angels. It’s a beautiful description of her willingness to care for the Son of Man that somehow transcends someone who fulfills a domestic duty simply because she’s a woman in a house of men. She transcends in service by seeing what she’s doing as holy work. It says a lot about her, don’t you think?
Dr. Molly Marshall shared with a group of us pastors a few years ago her thoughts about the relationship between service and nurture. Dr. Marshall mentioned off-handedly almost as if it were a throw away line that it’s always grace before achievement and nurture before service. She illustrated what she meant by adding if you have to choose between service and nurture, choose nurture because the fruit of that nurture will be a spirit of service. And so it was with this woman whom Jesus healed.
Service is also a work of wisdom, discerning the balance between giving away in response to what we’ve received and giving away out of our abundance. We learn in the Bible that for those who have been given much, much is required. Those who have been given much have something to share. But sometimes we’re guilty of giving away too much and we end up trying to give away that which we no longer have. We run on empty while others are bloated on having much but never finding an outlet for sharing it.
For some of you, you need Jesus to come to your house and to take you by the hand welcoming you back to good health. A spirit of service will return to you once you have been nourished back to good health.
It wasn’t long before the word got out and the Mark gives us the scariest line in the whole Bible for those of you who are caregivers: The whole town gathered at his door. Heal one person and guess who comes to take their place? Five more sick people, all clamoring for the same thing.
Care giving is one of the toughest of all things we attempt to do. It takes time and it takes commitment. Most of all it takes maturity to see what needs doing and to do it in place of all the important things that need doing.
We’re a busy people and before we know it, we’re overrun with needs. Here’s how my friend Burt Burleson described it:
The World at Your Door
Knock, knock. Who’s there?
It’s the world and what we bring, open up, and do your thing.
Feed the dog and the hungry, attend the meetings, various and sundry.
Change the filters and your mind; watch the movie, then rewind.
Make the living and the bed, read the book, expand your head.
Run a business and an errand; don’t let the rainforest get too barren.
Pick up the cleaning and the pace; help your candidate win the race.
Take care of your family and your teeth, and don’t forget the disaster relief.
Clean up the culture and the house, communicate your feelings to your spouse.
Check your email and your heart; keep the body, state of the art.
Fix the problems and the plumbing, look out your door, it just keeps coming.
Knock, knock Who’s there?
It’s the world and all we’ve got, open up, ready or not?
Whew! How do we get all done? Our busy world clamors for attention. It crowds in upon us just as the villagers of Capernaum did when they heard what happened to Simon’s mother-in-law. The tiny little house became the gathering point for all the village’s sick all whose hearts were burdened by some brokenness from which they couldn’t find relief. The whole world in that little town showed up at Jesus’ door and what did he do? He broke away to pray. He went to the wilderness so he could carve out some time to spend in prayer. Then he left.
Jesus demonstrated he had a larger agenda of purpose than to stay in Capernaum and set up a clinic to heal these same people over and over again. Instead, Jesus stayed on course. He refused to succumb to the ego needs of his four new followers who were mesmerized by the crowd and by the power of their leader to heal. Jesus turned to these men who could not fathom his need to leave and said, Let’s go to the neighboring villages so I can proclaim the message to them “ for this is why I came. And with that, they left.
My friend Tracy Dunn-Noland pulled a story from the early days of Billy Graham from his autobiography Just as I Am that helped shed light on Jesus’ need to pray and his need to stay on course:
Early in his career, as they were traveling by train to Minneapolis, Graham noted that, we were greeted by the conductor and the porter as though we were some kind of celebrities. A strange experience, believe me. As they boarded the train, and settled into their compartment, we knelt together to pray before climbing into our berths, both grateful and afraid. We could hardly find words to express to the Lord our thanks but we feared that we did not have the capacity to live up to our responsibilities. People were expecting so much from us now.
When they arrived in Minneapolis, a little girl ran up to Graham and handed him a rose. Uncle Billy, she said, we prayed for you. And of course, Graham said, that put it all in perspective. That was the secret of everything that had happened: God had answered prayer.
Strangely, when we’re on business doing the will of God, as we understand it and the needs of the world break in before us, it’s imperative we have time spent with God. The model of Jesus at this point could be a guide for us. When Jesus needed to know something truer about himself, he found a lonely place to go sometimes to the garden to struggle and pray sometimes to the wilderness to face up to the temptations. He was more than a dispenser of miracles, or a teller of parables. He was one sent to proclaim the message. He spent time with God so he could be reminded of who he was and whose he was.
Keith Herron is the Bridge Pastor for First Congregational Church of St. Louis. He is the author of “Living a Narrative Life: Essays on the Power of Story,” and served previously as a member of the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors.